Refugee Stories, Young Peace Journalists

Refugee Stories: Helping refugees along the Balkan Route (Part 3)


The following interview was done by Alexandre Fonseca of the Young Peace Journalists. It is the latest entry in the Young Peace Journalists project featuring the stories and voices of refugees. This is Part 3 of a 3 part interview. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.


We talked about your job and how you deal personally with the difficulties and also about the plight of refugees in Serbia, but what was the reaction of the media to the refugees and their presence in the country?

When the refugee crisis began, there was a lot of media, following what was going on. Now, the refugee crisis is covered only by a few of them, and generally they report only when something special happens, mainly, bad things or accidents. This winter, media reported about the bad conditions in the barracks, behind the Belgrade bus station, but now you can find independent journalists, who come to take a photo or interview and make some personal refugee stories, but there is a lack of media cover of the refugee crisis, generally.

Media behaviour about the refugee crisis in Serbia is positive sometimes, sometimes negative, but generally the situation in Serbia is OK, because I think our government did a good job in the beginning. They said we are an open country, which wants to help and that had an influence on public opinion, which generally has a positive opinion about refugees. And the media played a big role in that. We have less positive comments about refugees, but the situation is OK for now. If we look into the future, we need to use media to raise awareness about refugees’ issues.

And is the reaction of Serbian citizens?

As I mentioned, in the media and from local population, we can hear also negative comments and probably there will be more in the future. The local population is not sufficiently informed about the situation with refugees, why they come, and also about plans for what will happen in the future. Are they going to stay here? Under what conditions? And when it mixes with prejudices and fears, that can create a bad atmosphere in society.

You need to explain to local people who are these refugees, why they flee and to introduce them to each other. Introduce both sides to a new culture, customs and traditions. One of the options how to do this is through media and through personal and human stories, through objective, fair and ethical reporting. And, all of this needs to be done systematically, the government needs to be part of this, to have a plan how to do this and to support the organizations involved.

Due to the economic situation and because it is very difficult to find a job many young people are leaving Serbia. The poverty rate is high and when people say “we cannot even help our citizens, so how we can help refugees”, they are somehow correct. Due to fear for their personal existence, not knowing the situation, prejudices and so on, local people sometimes have negative comments about refugees. On the other hand, we have very positive comments and people want to help the refugees, precisely because we know how it is to be a refugee and how it is to live in poverty. We just need to work to reduce prejudice, raising awareness and tolerance.

I have complaints almost every day, but I also heard them in the past, when I worked with Roma people. They usually asked me “why don’t you help ‘our’ people?”. Then I just ask them “Who is ‘our’ people? Are Roma people ‘our’ people?” And then they don’t say anything. To those, who complain, I always tell to get involved and that they have the opportunity to help some of ‘our’ people, whoever these ‘our’ people are.

I would like you also to address some of the myths regarding refugees and their staying or passing by the routes to Europe, namely the questions of their use of “smartphones”, claiming people who use them are reach and aren’t really refugees; the visibility of adult men, compared to children and women, making it appear they are the majority of refugees (and the fear they they are terrorists); and finally the way people fear “their own” culture will be lost with the arrival of refugees?

Smartphones are one of biggest myths about refugees. People usually say something like “if they have a good phone, they need to have money and if they have money, they cannot be a refugee”. You can also hear a story like “if you are a young boy why do you escape from your home, if you can stay and fight for your country?”

When I try to explain to other people why this is wrong, I tell them to just try to put themselves in that situation. I did that in my Ted Talk. I just ask people in the audience to think about their home and to try to remember everything important there, every detail that makes their house a home. Then just to stop and to go back, because they have only three minutes to pack just one bag, only the most important things, because they have to leave the house, as their life depends on it. Then, I asked them what would they put in that bag? Are they going to take their smartphones? Today, you can’t do almost anything without smartphones. It’s useful for GPS, if you have to cross the border through the forest, for example. Or you just use it to call your family, on FB or Viber. It is necessary.

And, if you are a young boy, and you don’t want to go to war, you have all right to do that. When refugees talk with us, for example, refugees from Afghanistan, they tell us that, in Afghanistan, they need to go to war to fight with someone, but they don’t know on which side they will be, because everything is a big mess.

And sometimes there’s no war but refugees may be facing persecution or hardship in their home country…

People, who are coming from territories which are not in war, they live very badly. For me, it’s a good reason that you can go somewhere to find a better situation. Young people of my generation from Serbia also go abroad to work, if they cannot find a job. They finish school, they get good grades and, after that, they get a job as waiters and just decide to go. Almost all my friends now are in Germany or they work on cruise ships like waiters, so for me, that’s a very legal reason to go. Furthermore, people use this refugee crisis to leave their country, some of them are migrants, some of them are refugees, but they all deserve a chance for a better life.

Do you think this fear and the systematic rejection of many governments of people coming from these countries related to the fact that some of them have a different skin colour or a different religion than the majority of societies in Europe ?

Of course, there is fear of something that is not familiar to us, but learning about each other, putting people on the same table to eat or just play cards together, you can solve some problems. This situation now is very massive, so you need to have some strategy on a national or international level. It’s not in our handling. We do everything we can here in Miksaliste, now, but we need to speak about all this, we need to think about this and prepare some strategy.

In you TED talk, you spoke about the challenges of accommodating the 6000 refugees that may stay in Serbia. According to you, what can be done and what should be done, other than some of the individual solutions you alluded to, not only to avoid discrimination and resentment by the “native” population, while also allowing these kids and adults equal opportunities in Serbia and, more broadly, in Europe?

For now, we can speak only about the situation in the camps and if we have enough food and clothes. We don’t have the time or capacity to think further, because this is still an emergency situation. But, in the future, we need to think about what these people really need and how we can avoid prejudice, how we will organize school, in which language, Serbian or English, or Arabic or Farsi, Pashto, Urdu. How we will help them to find a job and so on. In some places you have already kids who are going to school, but I think we need still need to do more than now.

Should this strategy come from above? From the international community and governments?

Yes, because this crisis involves a lot of countries. First, we need to have an international strategy for refugee crisis, but we still don’t see anything on the paper, regarding what will happen in the future for this people. For now, everything is still, as we say in Serbia, in the “air”. We still don’t know how many refugees will be here tomorrow. We don’t know if other countries will open the borders and if all refugees will leave or a lot of new ones will come. In these conditions, it is almost impossible to plan anything long-term. People’s needs are changing every day and it is very difficult to organize.

And, to conclude, do you believe in the power of ordinary people to face, among other big problems in the world right now, this huge humanitarian crisis?

I think the most important thing we can do, it’s to show them that they are people, like we are. Just to talk is, sometimes, all they need. Sometimes it’s more helpful than anything, because they really need to feel like people and they need to feel that somebody understands them and someone wants to help them. For example, when we worked with Roma kids, it helps them when we teach them Serbian or English or German, but it’s more helpful when they feel that you are a friend. The same as now, when they know they will try to go on border, to try to cross, they come here to say goodbye, to hug some of us. They want to stay in contact and, usually, they say “thank you very much. If you come to Germany and if I’m there, call me”. So ordinary people can bring back faith into them, we cannot forget that we are all humans, just humans and nothing else. We are not Christians or Muslims, we are not from Serbia, Germany or Syria, but we are humans.  Show them that you are both the same, that we have compassion and help them when they need, that’s the most important.

Alexandre Fonseca is currently a volunteer assistant teacher at the Nicola Tesla Technical School in Belgrade, Serbia. Before, he was working as an European Voluntary Service volunteer in Ankara, Turkey and working as a Customer Support Agent in Athens, Greece. He believes that this project is a way to defend the right for everyone to travel and seek refuge wherever and whenever needed. He will be an EVS volunteer next year in Novi Sad aiming to raise awareness about the refugee crisis in Serbia and around the world. The YPJ project was a great way to learn about this crisis through personal stories and by connecting them to the bigger, sometimes messy and chaotic, picture.

Refugee Stories, Young Peace Journalists

Refugee Stories: Helping refugees along the Balkan Route (Part 2)


The following interview was done by Alexandre Fonseca of the Young Peace Journalists. It is the latest entry in the Young Peace Journalists project featuring the stories and voices of refugees. This is Part 2 of a 3 part interview. You can read Part 1 here.


Can you tell us a little bit about the bigger picture regarding refugees and the “Balkan Route”? What are the biggest challenges that refugees are facing right now in Serbia?

Sometimes, refugees just need someone to talk with them, about completely irrelevant topics, such as weather or cricket. Sometimes, they come just to participate in a creative workshop to draw and paint, but sometimes they open their soul to you. They talk about their families, mothers and sisters, show you photos and, very often, these are people, who are gone, who are killed in the war. You need to learn how to deal with such a story and how to be a professional in these situations.

But the biggest problem of refugees, right now, is that they feel that they are stuck here. So, a month or two ago, they had some hope that they could go further and that somehow they would be able to cross the Hungarian border, some legally, some illegally. Currently, only five persons per day, from Monday to Friday, on two border crossings, can cross to Hungary. And this is from a list which is made in the government camps, where most families are staying.

So only 50 persons per week are legally allowed to crossed the border to Hungary from Serbia?

Yes. It’s a very small number of people. They can enter Serbia, through Bulgaria and Macedonia, but it is still very difficult to continue, and they are just stuck, they feel they are stuck. Some of them try to cross the Romanian or Croatian border, but it is very hard, and very few of them manage. Some are even being caught in Slovenia and sent back to Serbia. Some of them are trying to cross the border themselves, some in small groups, some with smugglers, but it’s very dangerous, if they are caught by the police, especially in Hungary and Croatia.

Sometimes, the police are very kind and bring them water and tell them to try again, but sometimes they just beat them and take their phones, their clothes and shoes and send them back to Serbia. Some of them tried up to 16 times to cross the border, unfortunately, without success. I think that they now are getting more and more depressed and some of them you just feel that they are stuck here.

Outside they are smiling, but in their heart they feel pain, because they know that now the situation is critical and that they have a lot less chances to continue their journey. Those, who are in Serbia, outside the camps and live in the barracks, behind the bus station in Belgrade, they live their daily life in very poor hygienic conditions, violence has become more common and the situation is becoming more serious. Life in these barracks, if you can call it life, is not a long-term solution and something will have to change.

What is their impression of Serbia in relation to other European countries and do some refugees or asylum seekers want to stay in Serbia?

Some of them seek asylum in Serbia, but they are a minority. They don’t see future here and it takes a lot of time to get asylum, it is very hard to find work here and, because of that, they want to go to Germany, France or Austria, where they have relatives or friends. They have this dream that everything will be better once they are in Europe, Germany, France…

Sometimes when we speak with refugees about the situation in Serbia or we tell them how much is the salary in Serbia, they ask us: “Why don’t you go in Germany”? They have a pink picture about these countries, because they think that when they get to Germany or any other country in the EU, everything will be OK, but it’s not that easy. They crossed many borders illegally to arrive where they want to be and they will still be illegal there. So, we try to explain them how it works and what are the procedures, their rights and their obligations. It is very important to introduce to them the new systems, laws and customs in the countries different from their own. Today, for example, we spoke with some young guys about woman’s rights and marriage and we tried to explain to them the differences between Serbia and Afghanistan, on this topic.

Most, if not all refugees, find themselves in vulnerable situations. But women refugees may find themselves in a position of double vulnerability, not only because they are refugees, but also because they are women. How is it possible to deal with it?

That was the reason we made the women’s corner. Women are every time in group, almost always with their husband or other relatives. But, in the women’s corner, they can take a rest, drink coffee or tea, and at the same time, talk with someone. In such circumstances, we have a chance to gain their confidence and to help them, if they have problems.

Women refugees are very vulnerable, and because of that, it is necessary to provide them with services that will suit their needs. Sometimes, you have a single mom with three years old children, or you have the case of a woman who travels alone with four children, whose husband died in Afghanistan, and they try to go to Europe. During the entire road, she has a high risk of becoming a victim of human trafficking or other forms of violence – as well as her children – so it’s really difficult for them, and we need to have a sense for all this and to provide services, which will respond to their needs.

What about the children? What are their main difficulties and what measures can be put in place to minimize their suffering?

Children are also a very vulnerable group, especially if they are unaccompanied minors. There are many dangers for them and with children you have to work very carefully. In these situations, not rarely, you are not sure what is the best interest of that child. Whether to stay in the group with which they are traveling, or to separate him or her from the group. One of the most important services for children is to have a safe space. Separation from family and all what is happening leaves a very large effects on their health, both physically and psychologically. They lag behind in education and don’t have the opportunity to be only children. They are forced to grow up very quickly. Here, in Miksaliste, they can come and play and have English classes, but we have a lot of them who just tell us: “I cannot go to learn English, because my brain is a total mess. I can’t focus now on learning English or Serbian, because I’m thinking about my mother or my home or how can I cross the border.”

Alexandre Fonseca is currently a volunteer assistant teacher at the Nicola Tesla Technical School in Belgrade, Serbia. Before, he was working as an European Voluntary Service volunteer in Ankara, Turkey and working as a Customer Support Agent in Athens, Greece. He believes that this project is a way to defend the right for everyone to travel and seek refuge wherever and whenever needed. He will be an EVS volunteer next year in Novi Sad aiming to raise awareness about the refugee crisis in Serbia and around the world. The YPJ project was a great way to learn about this crisis through personal stories and by connecting them to the bigger, sometimes messy and chaotic, picture.

Refugee Stories, Young Peace Journalists

Refugee Stories: Helping refugees along the Balkan Route (Part I)


The following interview was done by Alexandre Fonseca of the Young Peace Journalists. It is the latest entry in the Young Peace Journalists project featuring the stories and voices of refugees. This is Part I of a 3 part interview.


Dobrila Marković is an activist at the Novi Sad Humanitarian Center (NSHC), an NGO based in the Serbian province of Vojvodina. The organization was created to help people that became refugees after the breakdown of Yugoslavia, but has since shifted the bulk of its work. Nowadays, they are mostly involved with helping refugees staying in Serbia or trying to go through the so-called “Balkan Route”.

Dobrila first volunteered in the “Kid’s Centre” of NSHC and worked, afterwards, with other vulnerable groups, such as Roma kids and victims of human trafficking. In 2015, at the height of the refugee crisis, she started helping refugees in various cities and towns bordering Hungary and Croatia, as well as in Belgrade. Her talk “Refugee Crisis: How much are we willing to help?” (in Serbian) can be found here :–jUP8voMU

Our talk took place on a quiet and grey Sunday morning on the 6th of May, 2017, at the Miksalište house, an NGO that welcomed refugees in the Serbian capital of Belgrade. This organization- where Dobrila also works – saw its first building being demolished during the election night of the 25th of April to give place to the mega-project Belgrade Waterfront. A year later, after the what came to be known as the Savamala demolitions, and since our conversation, the government of Serbia also demolished the barracks, a large self-built “city”, where many refugees were staying. This demolition as well as the notice that refugees were to leave the place to go to governmental camps within 20 days happened long before, catching refugees and assisting teams on the ground off-guard, creating even larger logistical problems.

Can you tell us about yourself, your life before volunteering and how volunteering provided the opportunity to work?

I went to University in Novi Sad. I came from a little city nearby, but I didn’t volunteer before that. I started to have classes and it was a little too boring for me. I needed some creativity, so I tried to find something interesting and, together with my friend, I found that organization, NSHC, and send them my CV and application to volunteer with kids. I was in Law School, but I thought nobody would call me, because I was not studying something that enabled me to work with kids, but they called me. I came to the interview, but I made a big mess, because I went in another appointment, on the wrong time. But, after that, I started to volunteer and it is how the story begins, on a bit funny way. It was in 2009, the first time I work with kids, Roma kids in Novi Sad.

After 2 years of volunteering, some other projects appeared, about human trafficking and they (NSHC) asked if I wanted to work with them. So in 2011, I started to work for the organization. Before that, I was a volunteer on the project with Roma kids and it was like a big party all day. We worked with a lot of kids and our task was to help them with homework, teach them to read and write.

A lot of them speak a mixture of Albanian and Roma language at home, so they have problems understanding the lessons at elementary school. So we organized additional classes for them, and also we organized workshops and fieldtrips. But, most importantly, we were their friends and that meant a lot to them.

In your Tedx talk, you mention the story of your family, that had to flee Bosnia and leave everything behind. Can you tell also about your past, your life before volunteering and the conflict on ex-Yugoslavia and how that influenced your own sense of mission and response to this crisis?

I was not a refugee, I am born here in Serbia, in Titel, a small and peaceful village, near Novi Sad. But the family of my mother was from Bosnia and they become refugees, when the war started, in 1992. During a period, when the war was going on, we all lived together in our family house, in Titel. I think we were eleven and a lot of kids. That’s also when I started to go to school. Before they came into our house, for a long period, we actually did not have any information about them and it was too hard for my family, because we didn’t know if they were alive. There were no phones at that time… We only had one phone in our street, and we would all use it. So the first contact and first information we got about them was that my uncle was shot and that he was in the hospital. I was little then, but I remember that that was very difficult for everyone. All this had a lot of influence on us and how we look at the world.

I remember some situation where I didn’t want to eat something, like vegetables, and my mother used to say “Oh, you choose what you eat, but your sister Desa [Serbians call their direct cousins as sister(s) and brother(s)] may not have anything to eat today”. Maybe it was too strict, but it taught me to always think about the others. I remember we would collect food for refugees in my street. With my grandmother, we would go to ask people – our neighbours – to donate flour, milk and things like that. The word “refugee” was all the time around us. We were refugees, our family members were refugees, our friends… In the news, we read about refugees, we donated for them. That topic was all around us.

After the war, we had some quite time, but again, in 1999, the NATO bombings happened, and everything started again. I think, I was in the fourth grade then, ten, eleven years old, and lots of kids from bigger cities came to my town, because it was safer. For us, as kids, it was like a party all day, because we were not going to school. We were all the time on the streets playing. And, in some way, we got used to the bombs, sirens and sleeping in shelters. For us, it was no longer a big deal, even though the bombs targeted a bridge on the river, in our little village. Although the plane crashed in the nearby village. But now, when I think about that, it all seems terrible. We always had some connection with some crisis, some war or something like that. All this leaves a lot of influence on people…

Do you think that has helped you personally, and Serbians, identify with the plight of refugees nowadays?

 Yes, I think so. When you work with people in need and when you want to help them, you start with the thought “try to put yourself on their shoes”. And we were on those shoes. Of course, you have people here that say that “they” – the refugees nowadays – don’t need to be here or they ask “why do they come here and don’t stay in Syria or Afghanistan?” But the other part of Serbia just wants to help, because they know what it means to be a refugee. You can see here a lot of people, who just want to do something to help.

Where are you based right now and what is the main bulk of your work?

We work with refugees from the Middle East, since 2015. At first, it was a project where we were providing the first and urgent humanitarian assistance, food and hygiene. We worked with refugees on the border with Hungary and Croatia. As the needs of refugees changed, we also changed our way of working, adjusting to their needs. Now that the “Balkan route” is closed and the refugees stay longer in Serbia, we have the opportunity to provide them with more assistance and support.

Today, we are working with refugees, who are in the camps, but also with people, who are out of the system. We are working in Sid, Belgrade and Subotica. We still provide food and snacks, and we work on monitoring the food distribution. In Belgrade, we work in Miksaliste, where we have services providing first psychological and social help, as well as distribution of clothes and protection of those, who are in bigger risk of violence. In Miksaliste, we have a corner for mothers and babies and also for women and young boys. This is the place where they can get services tailored to their needs. But also through all our other activities, we are trying to work on their integration and raise the awareness of Serbian citizens about refugees.

What are the biggest challenges that professionals and volunteers working with refugees may face?

It is very hard to work on a project like this. It is difficult, physically, mentally and logistically. We work in three locations in Serbia (Beograd, Sid and Subotica, in this moment) and every day our teams are going from Novi Sad to the field, which means you need to fit vehicles and people, packages and needs and everything else – on a daily basis. Also, for people who work as field workers physically this is not easy at all to travel every day for at least an hour to get to work.

How important do you think it is to have support from the organizations for the professionals and volunteers working with refugees? And how to avoid that, despite the willingness to help, untrained volunteers or professionals might cause more harm than good?

When NSHC started to work with refugees in 2015, a lot of people called to volunteer with us, but we don’t involve volunteers for this, because it was hard to work on this, mentally and physically, so we employed new people to work with us. A lot of them are young people who volunteered in our NGO on some other projects, and this was an opportunity for this young people to get a job, but also to help refugees.

People who want to volunteer have good intentions, they want to help and that’s just fine. Working with people in these conditions requires some training and experience. Everything you do needs to be well planned and organized, just for you not to cause more harm than good. Whether providing psychosocial support, cooking food or sharing clothes, you have to be very careful and do it very professionally.

This means that organizations must take care of their employees and volunteers, train them, and also provide psychological support to them to avoid burning out. When you work with people who are in a very bad situation, it is difficult for you to deal with it. You have to look after yourself in order to save yourself from burning out.

Again, as long as you worked on it and as long as you are aware that you have to protect yourself, you cannot avoid the feeling of helplessness, when you have nothing to offer these people or you cannot help them. You will have to deal with situations like this, where you may have five shoes and ten people without shoes and you need to decide who will get it, but you know that everybody need it. It is not easy at all…

You are there and you listen to all their difficult stories and destinies. You share their burden. And we all also have personal life and stories, personal problems and you need to deal with that and then come here and smile for them, because they lost everything and your job is to help them. After every distribution of shoes, I go home and dream about “shoes”, people who are trying on every way to get shoes and tell me: “Sister, I need shoes! Look! My shoes are broken. Please…” Sometimes these situations can be very funny, but sometimes they are very stressful.

And does the support of family and friends make it easier to deal with everything?

My husband works in the same organization and we can almost say that we spent our honeymoon on the “Balkan Route” with refugees. The fact that we do the same job helps us to understand and support each other. But, for some people, it is very hard to understand how we live and how we work and how we spend our time, because we are almost always on the road.

Does the experience working with Roma kids or victims of human trafficking helped you to work and assist refugees today? And are there important differences between the groups?

The difference between this two groups of people is only that we speak different languages. But everything else is the same for me. Working with vulnerable people in Serbia, before this, helped me to understand everything, to know what I can expect and to be prepared for certain situations.

For example, when we had floods in 2014, we provided humanitarian aid also and that helped us to know how to organize the distribution of aid for a large number of people. Also working with Roma people, who are mostly Muslims, helped us to know better the culture and tradition, to know what they eat and what they don’t eat. The work with victims of human trafficking helped us to be very well prepared for such cases and to be able to recognize them amongst the refugee population and to react in time.

Alexandre Fonseca is currently a volunteer assistant teacher at the Nicola Tesla Technical School in Belgrade, Serbia. Before, he was working as an European Voluntary Service volunteer in Ankara, Turkey and working as a Customer Support Agent in Athens, Greece. He believes that this project is a way to defend the right for everyone to travel and seek refuge wherever and whenever needed. He will be an EVS volunteer next year in Novi Sad aiming to raise awareness about the refugee crisis in Serbia and around the world. The YPJ project was a great way to learn about this crisis through personal stories and by connecting them to the bigger, sometimes messy and chaotic, picture.

Nonviolence, Peace

A just peace built on contemplation and resistance

by Rose Berger

Note: The following story was submitted to the Nonviolence and Just Peace conference in Rome in April 2016. Conference participants were invited to share short reflections on their own experiences of nonviolence and peacemaking.

In 1999, I walked into Camp Rakovica. There were 1,500 Kosovar refugees in this camp on the dusty outskirts of Sarajevo. They had come by bus, car, and on foot. First held in the expansive bottling rooms at the Coca Cola factory, the refugees now live in an old cattle barn, in tents, and on an open field.

We were invited into the barn’s converted milking room and given the best of the plastic seats around a plywood table. Forty families live here in 6-by-8 foot cubicles separated by curtains. The men told us that Serb soldiers herded them out of their homes. One asked us to find information about his brother, who he presumed was dead in Kosovo. Adem, the oldest man in the camp at 80, wore a blue wool beret and his weatherworn face glistened with tears. Thirty members of his family had been killed by Serb paramilitaries in Kosovo.

The women stand around the ring of conversation holding children on their hips. They served us coffee in chipped red cups. Harija, in her mid-30s, shot her words at us like fire. “How can I live with this pain that my neighbor—my husband shoveled snow from her walk before he even cleared our own—stood in our yard while I was hanging laundry and spoke aloud how she was going to kill me and my children? She was trying to decide between mortar or sniper.”

There was no doctor in this camp. The outhouses were overflowing. The only food available was bread and canned vegetables. The graffiti on the wall shows a young man with a gun to his head.

One man led me down a shoe-strewn hall. He opened the curtain and there, on the bunk bed, lay a 2-day-old baby boy wrapped in clean linens and a rough army blanket. The mother looked worn and happy in her torn T-shirt and dusty skirt. I prayed over the Muslim child, making the sign of the cross on his forehead. No one seems to mind the mix of religious symbols.

War is the great evangelizer. As NATO tossed Tomahawks into Slobodan Milosevic’s tinderbox, Madeleine Albright said she’d pray for Serbia. At the same time, in the foxholes of Belgrade basements, cultural atheists were coming to Christ. While Belgrade burned and Pristina became a ghost town, prayer seemed to be the most powerful weapon in our arsenal. But how do we separate the arrogant petitions of the powerful and the desperate pleas of the weak from that revolutionary act that “moves mountains”?

Authentic prayer brooks no illusions. It is a process of disillusionment. Disillusionment requires education. Education requires context.

For more than 40 years, Tito and his successors squelched religious affiliation or ethnic identity for the sake of a “unified” Communist Republic of Yugoslavia. After Tito’s death, the country went into sharp economic decline. In 1982, The Wall Street Journal ran a story on the upheaval caused by an International Monetary Fund austerity program in Yugoslavia. The program was causing unrest, especially in a small province called Kosovo.

Lesson one. The end of communism’s enforced monoculture produced a renaissance of ethnic and religious identity and pride in the Balkans. Genuine pluralism cannot be produced by force.

Lesson two. Budgets, international monetary systems, and structural adjustments are moral issues with real and ethical consequences.

In 1986, Slobodan Milosevic became head of the Serbian Communist Party. He made a powerful nationalistic speech in Kosovo that effectively stole the national agenda from democratic forces and the Serbian resistance movement. His rallying cry was that Kosovo could never be separated from Serbia. In 1989, with massive popular support, he cracked down on opposition, purged the party of reformist rivals, and abridged autonomy in the regions of Kosovo and Vojvodina, establishing de facto martial law.

Lesson three. Past behavior is an important indicator of future behavior. Milosevic was an educated, urbane, and charismatic leader. He was also cruel and desperate to hold on to the last stronghold of communism in Europe. While we must always appeal to the “king within the man,” we should not be surprised by—and more importantly, we should be prepared for—the response of the tyrant.

While Milosevic was preoccupied with genocide in Bosnia, Kosovar Albanians—under the leadership of Ibrahim Rugova—organized a pacifist resistance movement modeled on Gandhian strategies. It was mainly unrecognized and unsupported by the international community. The death knell of the resistance was the Dayton Accords, when the European Union not only recognized Yugoslavia and Milosevic as its leader, but also rewarded Bosnian Serbs, who had committed the worst acts of genocide since the Nazis, by giving them half of Bosnia.

Lesson four. Appeasement has no place in building a sustainable peace with just foundations.

Early in 1998, after the Dayton Accords, Serb forces massacred ethnic Albanian civilians in Kosovo during a seven-month “anti-terrorist” sweep. Albanian dissident Adem Demaqi promoted a more aggressive nonviolent approach to Kosovo independence, calling for mass demonstrations and strikes. The Serb military responded with brutal force. As despair built among the Albanians and the war in Bosnia wound down, the militant Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army formed. They smuggled in weapons and began an armed guerrilla offensive.

Lesson five. By the time we come to a place where violence seems the only option, the failure is not simply in the moment, but in how we arrived at the apparent lack of options. The time to address a situation is before it devolves to violence. Once we are in the midst of violent conflict, peacemakers must be active in negotiating justice between the warring parties and interceding on behalf of the victims—all the while building the groundwork of a just peace.

Lesson six. Nonviolence is like horseback riding. When you get thrown off, you have to climb back in the saddle. Grappling with the hard questions about applying nonviolence in real-world situations can make us stronger, even when we don’t have simple or clear answers.

In the U.S. Christian commentator Chuck Colson decried the lack of church protest against the war. “What makes this silence even more disturbing,” he said, “is that the situation in Yugoslavia raises profound moral questions that the Christian church is uniquely qualified to address.” Theologian and activist Ched Myers reminds us that the body politic can be possessed by a vicious demon of silence just as the mute boy was in the gospel of Mark. Jesus tells us that the demon of silence can only be exorcised by prayer and fasting.

The prayer we are called to is at once profoundly personal and profoundly political. It consists of contemplation and resistance. Contemplation is the process of dismantling illusions and authentically seeking truth. Resistance is the act of rebuilding, both personally and politically, on a firm and true foundation.